Eating and Being   /   Fall 2019   /    Signifiers


Like a lover of endangered species, the lover of endangered words jumps for joy when he sees a word being rescued.

Wilfred M. McClay

Universal Composition, 1937, Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949); photograph: Philippe Migeat; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; © copyright Alejandra, Aurelio, and Claudio Torres 2017.

A recent book called Mere Civility, by the Oxford political theorist Teresa Bejan, has made a useful contribution to our struggling intellectual life, not least by imparting some clarity to the abused noun in her title. Bejan’s understanding of civility is not the politeness sought by today’s self-appointed arbiters of public manners and speech, by chin-stroking pundits, washed-up Midwestern congressmen, associate deans for student life, and other paladins of political correctness, let alone by the various busybodies who are constantly parsing our speech in search of things to be offended by. In fact, as Bejan acutely points out, the term civility is often used as a genteel-sounding pretext for the suppression of disfavored views.

By contrast, her ideal form of civility would not seek the attainment of a world in which no one’s feelings ever got hurt. What she has in mind is something far more robust, rough-and-tumble, and occasionally even rhino-hided—a world in which the understanding of tolerance would not require empathy so much as a kind of deep and principled respect for what Bejan’s hero Roger Williams called “soul liberty,” paired with an intense commitment to the dignity of speech as the chief avenue by which we ascertain and share the truth about things. There was a time, not all that long ago, when this freewheeling exchange of ideas was the central element of something called “liberalism.”

But my interest was drawn not only to the noun in the title of Bejan’s book but also to the adjective: mere. Her use of that word delighted me. Like a lover of endangered species, the lover of endangered words jumps for joy when he sees a word being rescued, and is grateful when a writer restores to currency a semantic possibility that had fallen into desuetude. It is as if a lovely antique table has been rediscovered after many years of gathering dust up in the attic, and when brought downstairs and cleaned up and polished, imparts a splendor and unbought grace to the room that no shiny new object could possibly match.

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